American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Minus Three

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  • Publication Year: 1971

Minus Three, by Gene Mason, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970. 190 pages, 12 color photos. $7.95.

Dr. Gene Mason, specialist in anesthesiology at an Everett, Washington, hospital, writes this personal account of his ascents of the highest points of three continents: McKinley in North America, Aconacagua in South America, and Kilimanjaro in Africa. The book describes ascents by the Muldrow-Karstens Ridge route on McKinley; the west-north side route on Aconcagua (with a major variation by an ascent of the previously unclimbed West Buttress from 13,500 feet to 20,000 feet, then return to normal route); the usual route on Kilimanjaro (very briefly); and a detailed coverage of the attempt on a new route on Kilimanjaro’s northwest flanks – with the party’s nearly tragic accident and the injured author’s painful and ignominious evacuation from the mountain atop the shoulders of native porters. The basic theme of the book, however, is not so much to describe routes but to share the author’s observations of the psychological – and sometimes hallucinatory – effects of altitude on the climbers’ mental processes.

The book should be of interest to all climbers, but also is written to reach the layman who enjoys an in-depth study of the climber’s world. Mason presents a clear, first-person view of the actions and interactions within his various parties, the individual’s thoughts and emotions at high altitude, and the sometimes resulting questionable decisions and his own soul searchings. He discusses his feelings of guilt when, just short of McKinley’s summit, he and another climber decide to continue to the top, to make this a “successful expedition”, while others in the party maintain togetherness below with a temporarily incapacitated companion. That the author’s decision to continue upward at the expense of party unity was made is not so important as the fact that it was recognized and analyzed in retrospection. So few mountaineering books deal so freely with this aspect of expeditionary climbing.

The foreword by Jon Lindbergh summarizes that “this is not another book on the glories of mountaineering … Mason tells a casually frank and at times joltingly honest story of … not heroes of legend, but ordinary people driven by extraordinary motivation … more striking is the insight provided into the minds and actions of the climbers themselves … his petty thoughts as well as his profound ones … Yet from all this comes a picture … more real than the ones found in some of the classic tales of mountaineering.”

The book provides a portrait of each mountain which is distinctive of its continent, with its climbing history and problems, and a lively commentary on the countryside and peoples visited enroute. Although not a geography lesson, however, the book could have benefited from a map of each peak’s location and approaches, and a greater number of photos to augment the 12 color plates of a few scenes on each peak.

The book jacket states that the author is the only man to have climbed three continental summits. However, several others have accomplished this, including Major William Hackett who claims as his five summits McKinley, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Kosciusko (Australia), and Mont Blanc. Since Minus Three, Gene Mason has climbed Elbruz in the Russian Caucasus, proclaimed by some as “the highest point in Europe.” Such wide travels among the summits could lead to lively discussions on the definitions of a continent: Europe or Eurasia? Mont Blanc or Mount Elbruz? (But what about Everest?)

Dee Molenaar

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